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What is Imposter Syndrome, and What Can You Do About It?

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Some of the most capable, intelligent, hardworking people you know might be suffering from a debilitating phenomenon—a distortion of thinking that makes them believe they're actually incompetent, unintelligent, and lazy. They're convinced they're faking their way through their accomplishments, and one day, they'll be found out—exposed as the frauds they believe themselves to be.

It's called imposter syndrome. Those who struggle with it "maintain a strong belief that they are not intelligent; in fact they are convinced that they have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise,” as it was first described in a 1978 study by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes that focused on high-achieving women. 

WHAT ARE ITS SYMPTOMS?

In the nearly 40 years since the syndrome was first identified, it has persisted in many successful people in a range of fields. (Maya Angelou: "I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.'")

The most common symptoms are negative self-talk; a need to constantly check and re-check work; shying away from attention in the workplace; and forms of overcompensation like staying late at work or not setting appropriate boundaries around workload. Internally, people struggling with the syndrome experience persistent feelings of self-doubt and fear being found out as phony. They over-internalize and blame themselves for failures, even when other factors played a role.

“Those struggling with imposter syndrome also tend to attribute success to luck rather than merit and hard work, and also generally tend to minimize success," Joseph Cilona, a Manhattan psychologist, tells mental_floss.

From the beginning, imposter syndrome has been primarily associated with women. “We’re still living in a culture which displays varying degrees of misogynistic attitudes, and those attitudes are definitely displayed in the workplace,” says Katherine Schafler, a private psychotherapist in New York City. “When women internalize these attitudes, it dents their professional self-esteem and widens the gap that imposter syndrome slips right through.”

But misogyny isn't the only cultural factor at play, and women aren't the only people affected; many men are too. Cilona says the “obsession with success, achievement, money, and celebrity that pervades American culture” likely exacerbates imposter syndrome. “When these kinds of values are glamorized and exalted, the importance of having—or not having—them can really be intensified,” he notes.

WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT IT?

Naturally, therapy is recommended for people who really struggle with the syndrome and fear it is holding them back. Cilona recommends cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), which focuses on “identifying and correcting faulty thinking and belief patterns like identifying negative thoughts and reality-checking beliefs.”

Schafler also recommends talking with trusted friends or professional colleagues. “If you can find a mentor in your field who understands the unique demands of your job, that might be even better," she says. "Imposter syndrome thrives on isolation.”

Finding the right workplace culture is also key, notes Schafler, who works with many high-performing professionals employed by what she calls “some of the most competitive, top-tier companies in the nation." (She also works for Google once a week.) The professional timbre of a place can either feed into, or help assuage, imposter syndrome, she says: “Any culture that doesn’t normalize the anxiety and identity challenges of beginning a new career or working in a high-pressure job will be a breeding ground for imposter syndrome."

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science
What Pop Culture Gets Wrong About Dissociative Identity Disorder
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From the characters in Fight Club to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, popular culture is filled with "split" personalities. These dramatic figures might be entertaining, but they're rarely (if ever) scientifically accurate, SciShow Psych's Hank Green explains in the channel's latest video. Most representations contribute to a collective misunderstanding of dissociative identity disorder, or DID, which was once known as multiple personality disorder.

Experts often disagree about DID's diagnostic criteria, what causes it, and in some cases, whether it exists at all. Many, however, agree that people with DID don't have multiple figures living inside their heads, all clamoring to take over their body at a moment's notice. Those with DID do have fragmented personalities, which can cause lapses of memory, psychological distress, and impaired daily function, among other side effects.

Learn more about DID (and what the media gets wrong about mental illness) by watching the video below.

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History
Scientists Reveal Long-Hidden Text in Alexander Hamilton Letter
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Age, deterioration, and water damage are just a few of the reasons historians can be short on information that was once readily available on paper. Sometimes, it’s simply a case of missing pages. Other times, researchers can see “lost” text right under their noses.

One example: a letter written by Alexander Hamilton to his future wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, on September 6, 1780. On the surface, it looked very much like a rant about a Revolutionary War skirmish in Camden, South Carolina. But Hamilton scholars were excited by the 14 lines of writing in the first paragraph that had been crossed out. If they could be read, they might reveal some new dimension to one of the better-known Founding Fathers.

Using the practice of multispectral imaging—sometimes called hyperspectral imaging—conservationists at the Library of Congress were recently able to shine a new light on what someone had attempted to scrub out. In multispectral imaging, different wavelengths of light are “bounced” off the paper to reveal (or hide) different ink pigments. By examining a document through these different wavelengths, investigators can tune in to faded or obscured handwriting and make it visible to the naked eye.

A hyperspectral image of Alexander Hamilton's handwriting
Hyperspectral imaging of Hamilton's handwriting, from being obscured (top) to isolated and revealed (bottom).
Library of Congress

The text revealed a more emotional and romantic side to Hamilton, who had used the lines to woo Elizabeth. Technicians uncovered most of what he had written, with words in brackets still obscured and inferred:

Do you know my sensations when I see the
sweet characters from your hand? Yes you do,
by comparing [them] with your [own]
for my Betsey [loves] me and is [acquainted]
with all the joys of fondness. [Would] you
[exchange] them my dear for any other worthy
blessings? Is there any thing you would put
in competition[,] with one glowing [kiss] of
[unreadable], anticipate the delights we [unreadable]
in the unrestrained intercourses of wedded love,
and bet your heart joins mine in [fervent]
[wishes] to heaven that [all obstacles] and [interruptions]
May [be] speedily [removed].

Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler married on December 14, 1780. So why did Hamilton try and hide such romantic words during or after their courtship? He probably didn’t. Historians believe that his son, John Church Hamilton, crossed them out before publishing the letter as a part of a book of his father’s correspondence. He may have considered the passage a little too sexy for mass consumption.

[h/t Library of Congress]

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